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Building a Chinese book library at home for children

This post outlines how you can go about creating your own children’s Chinese book collection at home, and what to think about as you do it.

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I only started consciously building a Chinese literacy collection about 3 years ago.  Prior to that, we had less than 10 Chinese books in our house, and none of them were ever read.  

Fast forward three years, and we now have well over 1100 Simplified Chinese books, and each of my daughters reads something every evening (and often many other times throughout the day).   Books have been an invaluable tool in our Chinese language learning.  

This post shares what our library looks like at the moment and how it’s been compiled  (so far …. I envisage our library will continue to be a moving feast).  I’ve always wanted to make a blog post using bar charts, Venn diagrams and marimekkos to put my MBA to good use.  So this is my geeky analysis of our bookshelves.

Why encourage your child to read in Chinese?

Well, why not?

If your child is in a local school in Singapore, they’ll for sure need to be able to fluently read and write Chinse to get through the syllabus.  Trying to achieve a level of literacy without reading any books seems incongruous.

If you are not in such a school situation, and your goal is for your child to have a solid spoken understanding of Chinese (as opposed to literate), I would also contend that literature can assist to play a role in this.  Plenty of research shows it’s difficult to be fluent in a language without literacy unless the language is learned in a fully immersive environment.  I have a separate post on how realistic it is for a child to reach fluency in a non-native Chinese environment.

Ultimately, reading in Chinese goes beyond literacy itself.  Reading books that originate from countries like China and Taiwan (as opposed to books translated into Chinese) can open a beautiful window into Chinese culture and values, and have a profound impact on other aspects of our lives.

How many books do I need?

The practicality and need for this will differ by geography.  Living in a teeny tiny apartment, my objective was to have books that take up less space (not so many hardcover books and titles that can get lots of mileage).  Living in Asia means that there is generally good accessibility of books, including options for borrowing at the library, so I was able to focus more on curating books at home which would be a combination of one or more of the following attributes: (1) cherished, (2) read multiple times, or (3) not available in the local library. 

(As an aside, whilst I love the Singapore NLB, most of what we needed to get started in our Mandarin literacy journey was NOT available in the local library, as I’ve observed their collection caters for either parents who can read Chinese and want to read junior picture books, or else it’s for children who are fluent readers and want to read young adult fiction.  The “in-between” books for nascent and emerging readers were not on the library shelves. ) Author Adam Beck from Bilingual Monkeys has written several books about maximising your child.’s early bilingual abilities and he includes success stories from families around the world.   One thing which sticks with me from his work is the correlation between the number of books a child has access to and their overall language fluency. There are other studies looking at time spent reading each day that draw similar conclusions.

To very badly paraphrase, about 500 books in the target language are needed for a child to have a good shot at fluency. Books add a dimension to language learning through extending vocabulary with everyday conversations do not allow for. In fact, access to books has more to do with comprehension and vocabulary building than literacy (which comes later) and can happen from a very young age. I would certainly credit extensive reading as being key to my children’s progress in Chinese.

Over three years, we’ve now built a collection of >1100 Chinese titles at home, which caters to an age spread of 5 years between eldest and youngest child. This number feels about right for us and it all fits nicely within an Ikea Kallax.

What types of Chinese books should I buy?

Books which your children will like. Period.  There’s no point in having books if they won’t be read.

There are various types of books, and some will be more helpful at different ages of the child, and progression in their language. 

I feel that children should be exposed to (pretty much) all kinds of literature from when they’re very little: both fiction and nonfiction, meaningful and whimsical, and yes some talking animal books are okay too. I’ve largely followed the same principles in building our Chinese book collection as I have with our English book collection, albeit with a much larger amount of resources (being effort + time + $ + shelf space) spent on the Chinese collection.

I did extensive research and compiling of lists before I bought anything. I relied heavily on my favourite online Chinese bookstores who have beautiful collections, and include English reviews for their Chinese books. I also leveraged and very much appreciate the groundwork from the amazing blogs of other bilingual families (especially Nancy from Guavarama, Julie from Motherly Notes and MJ from Hands-On Chinese Fun). who have generously written about the trials and tribulations of their own home collections, albeit in other countries.

There are seven main types of Chinese books for children, and our collection spans nearly the whole spectrum:

Toddlers / Early Language Acquisition
Board Books  (翻翻书 fān fān shū)  

Board books are sturdy books made out of thick and durable cardboard (often wipe clean), with simple stories, that a young child can handle by themselves.  They’re usually designed for a parent to read, so often don’t contain the simplest of written vocabulary.  On the whole, we had very few of these due to their ginormous space and my inability to read the content to the kids. One set that we did intentionally make space for is Habbi Habbi Bilingual Books, which come with a reading wand, for a toddler to self-read through tapping the pages.

Simplified Chinese board books for children
Younger Children / Emerging Language Acquisition
Picture Books (绘本 huì běn) 

Stating the obvious, pictures books have many pictures. The stories can vary in length from a few sentences (best for toddlers), to very long (for older children with a longer attention span). Many of these also have the tiniest font size imaginable. Like board books, these are typically books designed for an adult to read, and the vocabulary can be VERY hard.  This is why it’s difficult to go to the library and choose a picture book and assume your child will be able to read it themselves. 

For us, we would typically use our Luka Reading Robot to narrate picture books.  We’ve found many of the best picture books available in Simplified Chinese have actually been translated from other languages (usually English or Japanese). I’ve also felt that the picture books originating specifically from mainland China tend to often lack the humor or sentiment which my children enjoy in a picture book, or contain morals that don’t always gel with our family values, or a just plain *yawn*.  Of course, that’s an over generalisation, as there are some fabulous Chinese authors we love, such as Lai Ma 賴馬.   

Some of our favourite Simplified Chinese picture books
Early Readers / Nascent Literacy
Graded Readers or Levelled Readers (分级阅读 fēnjí yuèdú)

Graded readers (also sometimes called decodable books in English) are a special sub-category of picture books, which are made up of a limited word selection (often building up progressively) with pictures, to introduce basic literacy to children. Usually, these books come in entire series (like Le Le Chinese, and Odonata or the equivalents in English would be Bob Books or Fitzroy Readers) which would cover the 500 or even 1500 Chinese characters.  Hopefully, the font used will be big and clear, to encourage character recognition by the child.

On the whole, the stories contained in such books will be less interesting than other picture books, but the child will have a sense of accomplishment because they can actually read the book from cover to cover.  Many series of graded readers will become progressively harder, adding new characters and increasing in length throughout the series.

A selection of our Simplified Chinese graded reading books

The charts below are from two earlier posts where I examined levelled readers in more detail. You certainly don’t need ALL these sets. This is just to highlight there are many options out there. The reason why it looks like we have so many of these levelled readers at our house is that a series like Le Le Chinese comes with 300 mini books in it.

Which levelled reader is right for us?
Comparison of character lists contained in Le Le Chinese, Sage and Odonata graded readers. Yes we have all three because they’re all different.

Earlier posts where these graphics came from are comparing popular Chinese readers and character lists from Chinese graded readers.

Emerging Readers
Bridging Books (桥梁书 qiáo liáng shū  or 道路书  dà olù shū)  

This is a genre of books that makes the bridge from a picture book into regular fiction novels.  They’re really designed for those who can read (say >1000 characters) but still need to build up their reading muscle for longer texts, and keep learning new words through spaced repetition and exposure in different contexts.   The books may have a few pictures, but the focus is really on the text, and a child being able to read this by themselves.

These can be for children or adults, and there are specific series which in fact are designed for older learners (such as the easy-to-read novels by Mandarin Companion) which deliberately try to have more complex storylines, despite the character length limitations.   These are the kind of books that are difficult to come by on the shelves of the local library in Singapore, and this is where I’ve put a lot of effort to curate a collection of these that is suitable for my children.

Some of our favorite Simplified Chinese bridging books

Sometimes there are picture book sets (as opposed to chapter books) that could broadly fit this category too (such as Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie 开心小猪和大象哥哥).  Thie genre is a little ill-defined, but the intention is first books that a child can read independently after they move away from the training wheels of graded readers.

Bridging books for independent readers
Confident independent readers 
Children’s Junior Fiction (儿童小说  értóng xiǎo shuō) or Chapter Books ( 章节书 zhāng jié shū): 

This is what you’ll find plenty on the bookshelves of the local library if you live in a Chinese-speaking country.  They’re designed for good readers, who are moving into the ‘reading for pleasure’ category.  They’re mostly all text, and the story takes centre-stage.  We’re yet to indulge in any of these, but it’s my hope that my children will reach such a stage in the near future.

Other types of children’s books:
Chinese comics are such a favorite …. I couldn’t take the photo without a child trying to steal a book!

What to look out for in a good book choice?

This is very personal, and reflects a lot about the needs of the family (or the parents at least) as well as their interests.  There are many great books that someone you trust will say is excellent, and it might well be a flop at your house, especially once you get beyond the levelled reading stage. 

However, I’m sure there are even more books out there that are genuine total flops and these books will never be winners at anyone’s house, no matter how cheap or great they look on Taobao. So I’d suggest not to randomly purchase books on a whim, and especially so if you’re not fluent at reading Chinese and vetting the book.

A few high-level observations on how our collection has come together:

1. Choose books which fit their designed purpose

If it’s a picture book, make sure the pictures are beautiful – I look for artwork that stands out and is something we can discuss together, be it watercolour, or intricate pencil drawing.  For us, a large part of finding picture books has been ones that also have audio narration (easiest through Luka), since I’m unable to read them myself.

If it’s a levelled reader, make sure the font is a good size and the child can actually read it by themselves rather than needing Luka to read it.   Avoiding the crutch of pinyin is also a good idea here.  

If it’s a bridging book, make sure it captures their interest in wanting to read more and ideally isn’t cluttered with too much unnecessary pinyin nor English translations.  

I’ve actively tried to avoid books with pinyin and English, apart from our toddler books, where I’ve found it useful as a non-Chinese literate parent to help connect with the book.  About half of our board books are bilingual and include pinyin, whereas less than 5% of all our other books have pinyin. Another perk – for an identical title, the books without pinyin tend to be cheaper!

Most of our home collection deliberately avoids pinyin

I’ve deliberately chosen our picture books (and non fiction books) to be compatible with Luka Reading Companion

2. Ensure they’re well written (and well translated)

We have an eclectic mix of books, as you can see from the chart below showing all our books by type and author, in portion to how many books we have of each type. In total there are over 100 different authors, and not all can be labelled on this graphic. Do you identify with any of these names?

Books translated into Chinese

This is where I rely on other parents.  Not all books translate well into Chinese.  If they’re picture books, perhaps the rhyming doesn’t work in the translated version (good example here is the Madeline 玛德琳 series…. some of the translations rhyme and others don’t).  If they’re bridging book, perhaps the intended word selection is harder (Nate the Great 大侦探奈特系列 is a good/poor example of this – a book which is designed to be simple in English for a slower reader is really not so simple in Chinese). 

The general rule of thumb I have found is that Japanese books tend to be translated well, as I suppose the language more naturally lends itself to this.  Many Japanese picture books are stunning (both story and illustration-wise) and have not ever been translated into English, so they’re ones we have generally enjoyed the most. In contrast for English books – even if they were award-winning in English –  are a very mixed bag when put into Chinese.

Books written originally in Chinese

Surprisingly (or not), many non-translated original Chinese picture books can also be a little off when it comes to being well written.   They’re either overly preachy/moralistic or a total bunch of nonsense.  On the whole, we’ve avoided picture books originating from mainland China unless they’ve been very highly recommended.   Conversely, for graded readers, given the entire focus is around character selection, it would be weird for such books to have been written first in English. 

On the whole, our books come from a diverse range of origins. This is illustrated by the chart below – this of it as a square pie chart, with the amount of space taken up being the proportion of books on our shelves.

Depiction of the number of books in each category by the original language of the book

Across all book categories, without doubt, our most favourite books which get read over and over are those that are translated from Japanese (be it Zoroli 怪杰佐罗力, Butt Detective 屁屁侦探, 100 Storey Building 100层的房子, Crow Bakery 乌鸦面包店, Brother Mouse, 可爱的鼠小弟, Little Fox 小狐狸的故事, etc).  Second favourites have been books written directly in Chinese (like Mandarin Companion, Mi Xiao Quan 米小圈上学记, Lai Ma 賴馬 books, Monkey King, etc).  Books translated from English or European languages have generally been poorer cousins.

3.  Be mindful of anthropomorphised animal characters

This has nothing to do with the Chinese angle, and it’s all to do with scientific research.  It’s been proven that reading stories that contain human characters (as opposed to talking animals) can significantly increase a pre-schoolers altruistic giving, and promote prosocial behavior.  That’s not me, that’s the doctors saying this. 

The Montessori principle here – for younger readers – would suggest focusing more on books that realistically depict and feature topics they can appreciate and learn from in everyday life (not dragons, superheroes, etc). 

I’ve tried where possible to stick with these guidelines, and give a good balance towards books that do depict more natural interests of a child, including seasons, animal life, places, people, and cultures.  However, there are some very delightful books, like Frog & Toad 青蛙和蟾蜍 , Elephant and Piggie 开心小猪和大象哥哥 , Crow Bakery 乌鸦面包店 etc, which I wouldn’t have ever not bought. They’re wonderful stories which have brought us much joy.

It’s said that nearly 80% of children’s literature contains anthropomorphism. So for our bookshelf to be less than 30% anthropomorphic is bucking the trend enough for me.

Number of books and % where there is no anthropomoprhism
4. Try to support local South East Asian authors and illustrators

This is not always easy, because Singapore is a small island and arguably lacks the creative depth which other countries may have.  However, that is exactly why I do try to find local gems, and these makeup ~10% of all our books.  The scenery they depict and the stories they tell are much more relatable too, meaning they can be endearing reads.  A lot of our books on local festivals and foods are locally produced, and they’re great. 

What I found is that good picture books and readers published in Singapore or Malaysia are relatively easier to find than bridging books (and that’s also reflected on the NLB library bookshelves too). 

Our home Chinese library split by book type and origin
5. Fits the child’s interests

Only you will know your child.

Overall, I like to find books that are fun/enjoyable/moving to read with my children and share valuable life examples, whether that’s done through fantasy, reality, or something in between. 

Sometimes I have allowed books to be read in Chinese that I would bypass in English (such as comics, Diary of Wimpy Kid, Dogman, etc which all they’re friends talk about), because I know it’s something that will actually attract my children to want to read the Chinese version. I’ll do a follow-up post soon with the “Top 5” reads of the year as voted by my children.

6. Contains some Chinese cultural references

By this I mean idioms, references to a festival, or famous poem, historical figure, etc. Actually most of the books originating from China will give a glimpse of this, whether through the depictions or the story.   We’ve really found great things in this category, from historical comics through to the well-written and researched Mandarin Companion stories that cleverly retell English classics (like Jane Austen’s Emma, or The Secret Garden) in a Chinese setting. This is the same reason why I very much prefer my children to watch cartoons originally scripted into Chinese, rather than translated, if good quality ones can be found.

The number of books in our home collection that are originally authored in Chinese
7. Full sets of books

98% of the books we have are from complete series, rather than stand-alone books.   There are a few drivers behind this.

Where I can, I do borrow books at the library first and see if the child enjoys the particular author or series first.   It’s actually quite hard (or time-consuming) to borrow complete sets from the library, and that can frustrate my daughters who enjoy reading things in order once they’re hooked. 

So once I’m sure the child loves it, I’ll buy them all.   The logic is if they love one, then they’ll love them all, and it will keep them occupied without needing to find another new title to check out.  An added benefit is that it’s significantly cheaper to buy books in full sets.

And that wraps up collection of Chinese books, as of November 2021.

Where to buy great children’s Chinese books in Singapore?

Most of our books have come from online stores, although I do love physical book stores (I’m learning to be less self-conscious about asking for help when I step into these places not knowing a word of Chinese).  In Singapore, visiting a bookstore like Maha Yuyi in Bras Basah is a great option for browsing and getting recommendations for all ages – their prices aren’t bad either.

Sources for where all our Chinese books have been procured from

Singapore is blessed by many great online Chinese bookstores, often run by passionate bilingual mothers.  Many of our books came from group buys through such online bookstores. I also scout around secondhand from Carousell and from this FB Chinese book swap group that I started with a few other bloggers, as none of us have endless money to throw at books.  Others have come directly from Taobao and EZ Buy., which is why I’ve included the Chinese characters in this post, to assist you to browse by category if you are trying to search websites divided into book categories.

We also use our local library A LOT.  This post only lists the books we own in the house, but in terms of borrowing, we visit weekly and have a bundle of books each week (typically picture books for Luka to read to us.).  Some libraries in Singapore have better-equipped Children’s sections than others (like Our Tampines Hub).  I did an earlier post on finding great picture books in the local NLB library, including our favourites ones to visit.

On the whole, I’ve found for picture books (fiction and nonfiction) there are many wonderful go-to stores in Singapore.  For graded readers, they’re typically cheapest when direct from the publisher.  And for bridging books and beyond, as much as I’d love to buy them locally, the options have been much more limited.  Best local options for slightly older children’s literature have been Maha Yuyi and Books4Tots (ironic name given they are one of the best for older children’s books too!). If you know of other great sources for tween books, please share with me.

For the books which I’ve purchased locally in Singapore, there’s quite a difference between where to source books foe younger kids and older kids

What else is there to know?

Actually I’d really love to know what your family’s favourite books are! Drop me a line as I welcome all suggestions.

If you want to read more on creating your own home Chinese library, some earlier posts to look at would be:

Note:  These are all my own opinions/thoughts and there isn’t any sponsorship or affiliation from any bookstores., and no affiliate links  The blog is a passion project, simply sharing things we’ve found useful with others who may be in a similar situation.

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